Saturday, April 13

The Quiet Cleansing

Pooja Kumar, an 18 year old Hindu girl was shot dead by people of influence in the rural, and feudal town of Rohri, Sindh. Her sin only consisted of  resisting forced marriage at the hand of Wahid Bux Lashari, the accused, according to police reports. Although exact figures are arduous to obtain, almost twenty Hindu girls are abducted and converted to Islam in Pakistan every single month. As per UN reports, Hindu girls as young as thirteen are being kidnapped, trafficked and coerced to marry men twice, triple their age and consequently forced to convert to Islam. These marriages and conversions take place through coercive mechanisms such as threatening, violence or excommunication and although coercion is hard to prove, humanitarian activists say close to a 1000 Hindu girls have become victims of forced conversions throughout the years.

There are two methods of forced conversions; bonded labor and marriages. A practice where the landlord issues a loan to workers in advance of any completion of work is bonded labor, or “Peshgi”. The indebted laborer is then forced to pay back the loan through their labor while being paid slave wages along with extensive and inhumane hours. 85%  of bonded labour in the world occurs only in Pakistan and Nepal whereas per the Global Slavery Index, the 2.1 million bonded labourers in Pakistan are mostly Hindus from Sindh.

Bonded laborers have to live under surveillance and are exploited due to enslavement; the debt being used as leverage against them. Government officials tend to turn a blind eye towards these atrocities as they fail to enforce the national law on Bonded Labour Abolition (1992) whereas the police shows an obstinate resistance to change and recurrently fails to register complaints against landowners. The traditional, authoritarian and hierarchical rural structures result in the social acceptance of the phenomena. This hierarchical structure gives landlords the authority or power to constrain the political forces which increases vulnerability for these Hindus due to extreme poverty and inequality. The most vulnerable areas for forced conversions in Sindh are the Thar region (Umerkot, Tharparkar and Mirpur Khas districts), Sanghar, Ghotki, and Jacobabad.

The practice of forced marriage is perpetuated in the name of culture, religion, the sanctity of the family, and control over women. As religious intolerance towards minorities increases, so does the custom of forced marriages. A report by Gandhara states that there is a “conversion factory” in Sindh, converting Hindu girls to Islam and then marrying them off to Muslims. Among the most notorious names are the head of Dargah Bharchundi Sharif, Mian Mitha, in Ghokti, Sindh. There are very few who are strong enough to challenge him. Hari Lal, one of the victims of Mitha’s vicious nature, alleges that his two teenage daughters were kidnapped and trafficked by men linked to Mitha’s seminary in March 2019 and were coerced to change their religion. The victims are forced to sign documents which falsely attest to them being of legal age for marriage as well as converting of free will. These documents restrict police from taking any legal action against these crimes. The practice of forced marriages is essentially linked to patriarchal structures within cultural, social and religious norms that perpetuate male control over women, increase dependency of a woman on a man, making a large section of Pakistan’s population of women highly vulnerable to forced marriage. The local practices mainly in rural and tribal settings that establishes men’s control over women’s lives actively demonstrates how vulnerable women are to forced marriages.  

Moreover, minorities in Pakistan face discrimination on a state level. In November 2016, Sindh Assembly agreed to pass The Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Act 30, proposed back in 2015, against forced religious conversions.  The bill, however, was returned two months later due to the pressure from influential, conservative and extremist Muslim groups and is still on hold. The Hindu minority gets affected explicitly by oppressive national laws such as the application of blasphemy laws which discloses the level of institutionalization of discrimination within the country. The European Parliament explicitly showed concern regarding blasphemy laws, stating they are susceptible of being misused in order to target minorities and act as a hindrance in their right to freedom of expression. These laws prescribe life sentences or even capital punishment for alleged cases of blasphemy. To reach a conclusion, a plethora of people are getting affected mainly due to the state’s ignorance towards these atrocities. It is not less pervasive than it was 30 years ago; it was the state who failed to protect its minorities not only because of an economic disadvantage experienced by minority groups but also due to inadequate enforcement of existing anti discrimination laws. Ruling parties have never shown interest in empowering minority groups primarily to please the voter bank of extremist Islamic groups. It is important to simultaneously recognize that revolution should not only take place on a state level but also on an individual level because the root of the problem exists within the minds of people. The flaws exist in the ideologies of people who refuse to accept others as equal. There is a positive cycle of affirmation between the nature of the people and the state. One cannot change without the other and so we as the common people should not only remedy the problem inwards but also campaign to end coercive structures in our society.

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